In light of the recent news that 94-year-old NE Minneapolis resident Michael Karkoc was a top commander of a Nazi SS-led unit, I was asked if there was a “Jewish perspective” on how Nazi war criminals should be treated. While I certainly do not hold exclusive rights to “The Authentic Jewish Perspective,” I will gladly share some of my thoughts with you.
First, I believe that no matter how sensitive, emotionally charged, or intricately nuanced an issue, we can always find guidance and direction in the teachings of the Torah. Like with many Torah teachings, the issue often regards how willing we are to listen.
Combining the Torah with other sources of wisdom can usually create new understandings and discoveries. For instance, in his book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Simon Wiesenthal recounts how as a concentration camp inmate in Lemberg he was summoned from his slave labor detail to the bedside of a dying SS soldier. The soldier had participated in the mass murder of Jewish women, children, and old men in Dnepropetrovsk, and his conscience was torturing him in his last moments on Earth. With the help of a nurse, he sought out a Jew to whom he could confess and ask for forgiveness before he died.
“In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left… I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”
Wiesenthal said nothing and left. Later he questioned his behavior: “Ought I have forgiven him? Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This a profound moral question.”
A profound moral question indeed. So profound, that the entire second half of his book is dedicated to it in the form of a 53-response symposium. “Among respondents are theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Holocaust survivors, former Nazis and victims of attempted genocides [in various counties]. Some say forgiveness ought to be awarded for the victims’ sakes, others that it should be withheld in this case.”
Even the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the chief administrator of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” and most notorious Nazi to face trial in Israel, was met with this question of morality when famous Israeli philosopher Martin Buber led nineteen other prominent Israeli intellectuals in petitioning President Yitzchak ben Zvi to commute the death sentence.
What lies at the heart of the issue is the nature of forgiveness. What is forgiveness? Should one forgive? Why forgive? When should one forgive?
While this may not be the place for an exhaustive treatment of Teshuvah V’mechila (repentance and forgiveness) in Jewish thought, I would like to highlight two important and relevant points:
- There is no forgiveness without repentance. Only the penitent wrong-doer — one who fully understands their error and humbly and wholeheartedly seeks forgiveness —can be forgiven. For any offense, even verbal, there is a moral expectation upon the offender to appease the victim, even if restitution was made, even it takes numerous attempts. Without human appeasement there can be no divine atonement. In the Jewish tradition Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between a person and G-d. Yet even Yom Kippur, the Mishnah in Yoma (8:9) informs us, cannot atone for transgressions between one person and another until the offender placated the victim.
- Though one ought to forgive upon request, the Talmud makes some exceptions and qualifications. One such exception is when forgiveness is inappropriate because it is impossible. We sometimes hear of people “forgiving” offenses committed not against them, but against other people. G-d is compassionate to forgive and grant atonement; but G-d cannot do so when it is not G-d who is the victim. As demonstrated in the Mishnah cited above, G-d does not forgive — cannot forgive — an offense of one human being against another until the victim is appeased. It would seem, then, that to be inappropriate — even impossible — for a non-victim to forgive a crime committed against others. Forgiveness in Jewish thought is between the victim and offender.
If apply this to Simon Wiesenthal’s dilemma, it’s clear that Simon had neither the right nor the ability to forgive the vicious murderer of other people. Indeed many contributors to The Sunflower make this point in their response.
Let me finish with one more excerpt from The Sunflower. When asked if she could forgive a seemingly penitent SS officer who, years earlier, had help round up a group of Polish Jews and then set fire to the synagogue in which they were imprisoned, novelist Cynthia Ozick wrote:
“I forgive you” we say to the child that has muddied the carpet, “but next time don’t do it again.” Next time she will leave the muddy boots outside the door; forgiveness with its enlarging capacities, will have taught her. Meanwhile, the spots can be washed away.
But murder is irrevocable. Murder is irreversible… Even if forgiveness restrains one from perpetuating a new batch of corpses will the last batch come alive again…?
Forgiveness is pitiless. It forgets the victim… It cultivates sensitiveness toward the murderer at the price of the insensitiveness to the victim….
Let the SS man die unshriven.
Let him go to hell.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his Jewish Wisdom, comments that Ozick’s perspective “was informed by her realization that each of the Holocaust’s victims was a unique, hence irreplaceable, human being. As a contemporary observer of how different countries remember and commemorate the Holocaust observed: We must remind ourselves that the Holocaust was not six million. It was one, plus one, plus one...”